Racism, ERA and guns in Nebraska Capitol spotlight

Sen. John McCollister testifies on his gun control bill Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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February 21, 2020 - 7:08pm

Racism, the Equal Rights Amendment and gun control were in the spotlight in the Nebraska Legislature Friday.

Sen. Ernie Chambers began the discussion of racism. Chambers  referred to a February 7 incident in Fremont when black female basketball players for Lincoln High School were targets of racial slurs. Chambers, who’s black, blamed white racism.

“There was a clear racist environment. There were things said. Adults were even involved. It’s why I say the things I say on this floor. White children are what their parents are. They reflect what they learn at home, at church, and everywhere else,” Chambers said.

Sen. Justin Wayne, who’s biracial, said similar incidents recently in Kearney and Millard show Nebraska has a problem with systemic racism. Wayne pointed to the millions of dollars being spent to help white communities including Scotts Bluff County, where farmers are served by an irrigation tunnel that collapsed, blocking a canal in Wyoming, and Winslow, Nebraska, a town that’s considering moving to higher ground.

“We need $3.9 (million) to help farmers that -- really the canal is not even in our state. We can do that. We are passing a bill that allows the entire community to move, which I’m in favor of – I picked it as a committee priority. We spent $53 million on flood to help out communities. But I can’t get $5 million for north Omaha,” Wayne said.

Wayne was referring to a proposal he has to tailor tax incentives for that largely minority community.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks brought up the Equal Rights Amendment. She was reacting to Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson’s seeking to join a lawsuit as one of five Republican-led states regarding the ERA, which Virginia recently ratified. The argument involves whether an early 1980s deadline for ratification, which supporters missed, still holds. Pansing Brooks suggested Peterson’s action was gratuitous, and sends the wrong message.

"We need all people. Quit discriminating. We need to stand up as a group and say I don’t want my tax dollars spent like this. Was this really necessary? Was this necessary to go forward and join this case to say we are not in favor of giving women equal rights?” Pansing Brooks asked.

Peterson said he intervened because three Democratically-led states are arguing enough states have now ratified the ERA for it to take effect, ignoring the fact that Nebraska rescinded its ratification in 1973.

“As Attorney General, I cannot allow the formal action taken by the Nebraska Unicameral to rescind its prior ERA vote to be ignored,” Peterson said.

Friday afternoon, a hearing on a gun control proposal that would require dealers distribute literature on suicide prevention and do background checks at gun shows drew hundreds of people to the Capitol. A few of them carried guns. Concealed weapons are prohibited in the Capitol, but guns may be carried openly.

Brett Hendrix in Nebraska Capitol Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

One man who brought a gun, Brett Hendrix of Omaha, said he did so to show the presence of gunowners and demonstrate his Second Amendment rights.

“That’s all it is, is to show our presence, that yes, we have weapons. You cannot take our Second Amendment right away because we already know that allows for other amendments to be taken away,” Hendrix said.

Capt. Lance Rogers of the Nebraska State Patrol, who oversees the Capitol Security Division, confirmed that carrying a gun openly in the Capitol is legal. “You can come into the Capitol armed – open carry. You cannot come into the Capitol concealed carry, because we have a courtroom in the building as well as a police station, State Patrol office. So the concealed carry permit holders are not allowed to carry concealed. But open carry is allowed inside the Capitol building,” Rogers said. He added that there are limits on that, including prohibitions of guns on the floor and balconies of the Legislature and in the Nebraska Supreme Court.

Nebraska State Patrol Capt. Lance Rogers (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Rogers said most people behave in an appropriate manner.

“As long as everybody is behaving in an appropriate manner, we’ll let it be. We can’t address the content of their message, but we can address the behaviors. If they’re being disruptive in a hearing room, and where the normal flow of business of the government is not being able to proceed, then we’ll interject and we’ll act accordingly,” he said.

Sen. Adam Morfeld, sponsor of a so-called red flag law that would let law enforcement take guns from people judged a threat to themselves or others, criticized people bringing guns to the Capitol.

“People can obviously do what they want, but I think that when people bring their firearms, they’re not just making a statement that they have a Second Amendment right, but when they bring them to the Capitol they’re also trying to be intimidating and threatening,” Morfeld said.

Asked if he feels personally threatened, Morfeld replied “I feel threatened when people reference political assassinations in posts that opposes my legislation, yes.”

Morfeld was referring to a social media post that asked if he should be taken for a “helicopter ride,” a method of killing political opponents by dumping them out midair, employed by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and others.

David Pringle, general manager of DeGuns, a gun shop outside Lincoln, discounted Morfeld’s complaint in a Facebook video.

“There’s a certain senator that says one of our customers threatened them. Well, I took third grade English and I didn’t see anything in the newspaper that seemed threatening,” Pringle said.

The red flag bill may or may not be debated this year. The Judiciary Committee took no immediate action on the suicide prevention/gun show bill.

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